Land Office boss to depart, McCarville reports employee loan
CapitolBeatOK Staff Report
The McCarville Report Online has reported an employee loan from the office of Auditor & Inspector Steve Burrage to the School Land Commission (formally known as the Commissioners of the Land Office).
In a separate development at the commission, Secretary Mike Hunter has announced he is leaving the commission on September 1.
Today (Thursday, August 5), veteran journalist Mike McCarville reported at his online site, “Terri Watkins, former KOCO-TV reporter who joined then-Auditor & Inspector Jeff McMahan’s staff as his spokesperson, moved to the School Land Commission as its spokesperson last year but remained on … Burrage’s payroll through June.” (http://wwwtmrcom.blogspot.com/)
By law, Burrage is a member of the Commissioners of the Land Office. “Records examined by The McCarville Report Online show that Watkins collected her June paycheck of $5,833.33 from the auditor’s office on June 30th,” according to the web posting.
Watkins was announced to the commissioners as the new director of communications in November 2009, meeting minutes show: “New Personnel — Secretary (Mike) Hunter introduced Terri Watkins as the Director of Communications. Watkins is a loaned executive from the State Auditor’s Office.”
Burrage’s aide Trey Davis told The McCarville Report Online, “We had an interagency agreement with CLO through the end of the fiscal year where CLO reimbursed SAI for Terri’s salary and other personnel costs. Terri was still technically an employee of this office assigned to CLO per the agreement. I believe she became an employee of CLO effective July 1, 2010 but they can confirm that. Her position with SAI was concluded on June 30, 2010.”
In another development at the land office, Secretary Hunter told Governor Brad Henry he has “decided to conclude my tenure” on September 1, 2010. Hunter said he was “taking advantage of a business opportunity back in Washington, D.C., beginning in September but I fully intend to return to Oklahoma in the very near future this time for good.”
In the August 2 letter, provided to CapitolBeatOK, Hunter told Henry: “A great deal has been accomplished here over the past year thanks to your leadership and support.” He said in addition to modernization, he believed the agency now has “secured funding authority to properly staff the agency and invest in much needed technology. We have also regained the trust and confidence of the Legislature, the beneficiaries of the trust and, most importantly, the public.”
Hunter wrote he was grateful “for the opportunity you gave me to lead the turnaround effort here and the unwavering support of my efforts to fix what was broken and preserve and improve what was not.” He encouraged support for “a succession that keeps this team together and ensures that progress we have made over the past several months can continue.”
Hunter has guided the commission in the aftershock of a searing scandal. Former employee Roger Q. Melson embezzled more than $1 million. Hunter, a Republican and veteran of the administration of Gov. Frank Keating, was hired to run the agency late last year. He was hired by the land commission, dominated by state officials who are Democrats, to replace former state Auditor Clifton Scott, also a Democrat.
Hunter made administrative reforms, but also shepherded through the Legislature a significant bill dubbed a “reform and modernization act.” In addition to steps touted to prevent any recurrence of the kinds of crimes Melson committed, this year’s institutional shift under Hunter allowed the land office to provide a $30 million boost in distributions to state government schools and universities.
The Commissioners of the Land Office, a non-appropriated agency controlling massive resources not subject to regular legislative appropriation, administers the school land trust funds for the production of income for the support and maintenance of the common schools.
During the legislative session, in a press room discussion with CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations, Hunter thanked legislators in both parties for support of his reforms, as well as the members of the commission: statewide elected officials Governor Brad Henry, Lieutenant Governor Jari Askins, Auditor & Inspector Steve Burrage, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett and Attorney General Drew Edmondson, as well as the appointed state Agriculture Secretart Terry Peach.
Note: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.